The village of Meliandou in Guéckédou, Guinea, where the recent Ebola outbreak is believed to have started, is probably one of the most difficult places to reach in the country. It is a two-day drive from the capital of Conakry, followed by a long walk through the dense rain-forest.
Along with child protection officers and partners, I recently went to Meliandou, to understand how Ebola was affecting children. What we found confirmed our suspicions—based on what the people we spoke to said, there would be hundreds, if not thousands of children who have lost a parent, grandparent, brothers and sisters or have been made orphans by this deadly disease.
In small, rural villages, children without parents are vulnerable to stigmatization, hunger, malnutrition, and in some cases violence. Some of these children are also survivors of Ebola themselves.
During our visit we spoke with 13-year-old Jennette* who told us about her experience with Ebola. She offered us a seat on a log in front of her mother’s house; neighborhood children, curious about the arrival of strangers, stopped chasing a chicken and gathered to watch.
“I was about to finish 6th grade in Guéckédou when Ebola struck. When my grandmother got sick, she asked me and my aunt to help take care of her. I would clean up the vomit and blood and wash the soiled bed sheets.”
“When she got worse, my grandmother was taken to her home village to receive better care. She died on the way. After the funeral, I started to feel sick. I had a fever and began to have diarrhoea and vomiting.”
Jennette and her family were taken to the nearby Ebola treatment centre. Once admitted, Jennette tested positive for Ebola as did her sister and mother who had also contracted the disease during the funeral.
“We were housed five to a room – which I shared with my sister – and one person per bed. They gave us medicine to swallow. Sometimes we received visits from our brothers who were covered head to toe in protective gear. In our room one person died,” she recalled.
“After 23 days in the treatment centre, I was declared cured and released. Despite being healthy again, I could not be happy. I have neither my maternal aunt nor grandmother, as they were all killed by this disease. Ebola has taken seven members of my family. I thank God that my mother and my sister were saved.”
“I’ll have to be helped because it was my grandmother who did everything for me and I cannot return home with my [paternal] aunt who threatened me a lot when I was sick. So far she has never asked about my fate.”
Faced with stigma from her own aunt who kicked her out of her house, Jennette broke down in tears when speaking with us.
Situation of the child during the epidemic
I spoke to many children who told me similar stories. They had lost one or both parents and had been through a period of stigmatization, sometimes even from their own families. Eventually, many were welcomed back at school and by friends. Most were living with their extended family.
Their stories were heartbreaking. One little girl told us: “After school, I work at home and I play with my friends. I have no pens; I do not have shoes. I cry when I see my friends who have shoes that their parents gave them.”
UNICEF and partners have assessed the situation of children affected by Ebola. Our first step was to find out where they are and what they need. Now that we have that knowledge, we are putting programmes in place to ensure that these girls and boys are cared for in a family setting as soon as it is medically possible; and that they, their families and their communities receive psychosocial support.
Fighting Ebola in Guinea
In the early days of the outbreak, the symptoms, similar to other ailments that plague the country, masked the severity of the disease and its nature. Ebola didn’t arrive in Guinea in a vacuum. UNICEF and partners were also fighting two other epidemics – measles and meningitis – and the biggest killer of children under 5, malnutrition.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of the infected. Without this knowledge, the people in the affected areas as well as medical workers are particularly vulnerable.
We spoke to an infectious disease specialist who works in the Ebola treatment centre at Donka Hospital in the capital, Conakry.
“The children could not be accompanied in the centre, so we doctors took complete care of them. We washed them, fed them, rocked them, and consoled them. Some had lost their parents to the disease, and for those who were not orphaned, it was quite challenging for their parents. They had to be separated from their children and could only watch them from a see-through screen in the centre. Many found that very difficult but after sensitizing them, they eventually understood that this was in the child’s best interest.”
As we drove back to Conakry, the news broke of yet another spike in cases. Ebola had spread to new areas of the country; areas previously untouched by the disease.
It is predicted that Ebola will be with us for a while in Guinea, but even when it is over, its devastating impact will continue for these children who have lost parents; people who have lost family members; and communities which have lost health workers.
Timothy La Rose is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF Guinea. This story is written with contributions from Kadijah Diallo and Isaac Lelano.
*Name has been changed